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on 22 June 2011
Like Matter before it, I'm sorry to say I found this book almost unreadable.

I started with the Culture novels at their very beginning, buying and reading Consider Phlebas (The Culture) when it first appeared in paperback. I enjoyed it immensely and it's still one of my favourite books. Likewise Use of Weapons (The Culture).

But gradually the Culture stories became more elaborate and ever more words were sacrificed to over-blown descriptions and entire chapters of unnecessary detail. The story became secondary to Banks' prose.

I guess I like my stories slightly more pithy and, though I don't mind extra detail I'd prefer it was in support of the story, rather than as an exercise in verbosity.
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VINE VOICEon 29 April 2015
Iain M Banks crafts fantastic worlds where he doesn't simply look to the future but takes possibilities to their most grand, if not a times most extreme. In this book the main protagonist is Lededje Y'breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body an illustration of her family’s shame. For her life belongs to a man whose hankering for power is without end. She will do anything for her liberty, her release, when it comes, is at a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture; an anarchist utopian society that transverses space on planets, huge space orbitals and various space faring vessels. They can be considered munificent, progressive and almost infinitely ingenious though it may be, the Culture can only do so much for any single person. With the backing of one of its most potent AI minds - and arguably unbalanced - warships, Lededje finds herself heading into a war zone not even sure which side the Culture is really on. A war - brutal, far-reaching - which is already raging within the digital realms such as virtual heavens and hells that store the souls of the dead, and it's about to erupt into reality. For physical death doesn't have to be fatal. It's a simple matter to upload your mind regularly and if your physical body suffers an accident, then a new one can be cloned and your mind popped back into it.

When you read Iain M Banks Culture novels you will realise that space opera can be so, so much more, and it's all done with a razor-sharp black humour – but always with such intelligent style.
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on 21 November 2013
Unlike a book I recently read called The Hereafter which explores the concept of man made heaven, this book concentrates more on made made hells and is told on on an intergalactic scale. A space opera of deafening proportions told from right in the action so wear your ear muffs! The Culture is at war with death. Awesome!

There are many civilisations across the galaxy and many afterlives built across virtual reality space. Some are just playgrounds for those whose bodies have given up the ghost where some still have some philosophical purpose within the society. Not least of which are the Hells, which some civilisations are clinging onto for dear life despite objections led by the Culture who do not approve of torture in any form.

The argument has raged for a long time and so it has been agreed that it will be settled by a war in virtual reality Pro Hells Vs Anti Hells. The winner will get their way and the loser has to shut up.

Trouble is the war has spilt out into actual reality and the search for the substrates that hosts the hells is on. This search takes us to some fascinating places and some ideas that are adventures all of their own in true Banks style.

Also, much of the journey is told by the journey of one individual, someone outside the Culture who is murdered early on and ends up in the centre of the Culture trying to find her way home who is somehow connected to a central issue of the conflict. I love discovering the culture each time I read one of these books, especially from an outsider's point of view in the story who shares your awe - the decadence and the fat that anything really is somehow possible.

There are many other characters that we meet along the way who tell the story from different perspectives both within and outside the war.

This book has gratuitous violence and torture - we spend quite a bit of time in one of the hells - and it has some profound reflection on the condition of life and belief in something bigger and the effect that technology would have on such things. There are ideas enough for several books all rolled into one and it is a feast for action junkies, hard science fictioners and thinkers alike!
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on 1 January 2013
Banks has become a bit patchy in his latter days. It's difficult to keep a spark of creativity alive at the best of times, and the wild fire of Banks' imagination - operating in the science fiction and contemporary literary worlds - is a thrashing beast with perhaps only one or two good throws left. This is one of the better ones. Please ignore the lower rating for this story - most of the negative remarks are from a poorly formatted Kindle version. Buy the actual book and you will not be even a little disappointed. Banks gives us a couple of characters we can really care about and connect with, for the first time in a while. There is the usual complaints about the generic nature of his alien species - where even super-computer "minds" still feel like slightly over-intellectualising rationalists, rather than anything completely original or rounded. But if you want fascinatingly real aliens you read CJ Cherryh. If you want a blast of imagery and blazing imagination, you read Banks.

Where do you go after you die? What if the technology existed to send you wherever the dominant religion determined you should go? And can one tattooed girl stop them - especially since she dies in the first chapter. Ah, but death is not the end, and there will be a time in our own "culture" where we will out-live our own flesh. This will stand then as a terrifying and visionary work of how some people will always use the latest technology to enforce their stone-age superstitions. A greater and more horrific version of what is happening on the internet at the moment.

The pacing is wild and brilliantly handled, the prose dense and extraordinary, relentlessly driving these two opposing ideological viewpoints into their inevitable confrontations. And can that girl make a difference? Well, not in the way you might think.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 December 2010
I have read all of the Culture novels, but I don't think he ever matched the imagination and scope of "Consider Phlebas", although they were always readable (even if "Feersum Endjinn" was hard work). However, this novel has been worth the wait and surpasses the imagination and scale of his first Culture work.

The central part of the novel works around the virtual-realities that people can reside in. Personalities can be stored and resurrected into newly-grown bodies if required. Or they can stay as long as they wish in a variety of simulated worlds that can run at a different speed from reality. Some species have virtual worlds that are used as their version of Hell, with atrocities without end inflicted upon those that have been sent (or even volunteered) there. Some societies (the Culture included) see these as abhorrent and a series of wars are arranged between the pro- and anti-Hell sides - all within virtual worlds. The Culture, being the most powerful here is not taking part, but wouldn't mind if Hell lost.
Both warring sides agree that the losing side must abide by the result, but when it is obvious that one side is losing, it decides to take this fight out into "the Real", which will of course cost billions of lives should it escalate.
Intertwined within this is the story of a slave girl who was murdered at the hand of her 'owner'. She has now come back as she was stored (somewhat unexpectedly) by Culture systems. The Culture cannot allow her to exact revenge, but will escort her back to her home planet.

An incredibly imaginative and readable story. There aren't many books I keep after reading, because I know I will one day read it again. Consider Phlebas and this novel are amongst a small group of such works.
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on 30 November 2010
This has been said before, but if you're new to Iain M Banks's Culture novels, Surface Detail is probably not the best place to start. Better to start with Consider Phlebas or one of the other earlier novels. Nevertheless, Surface Detail has all the Banks SF hallmarks: parallel plotlines converging on a (usually) epic denouement, terrific inventiveness (you'll find yourself wondering more than once how Banks came up with this stuff!) and sympathetic characters whose fate we are led to care about. The book also exhibits one or two of Banks's faults: excessive wordiness, particularly in the descriptive writing (how much do we really need to know about a space suit?), and at least one plotline of questionable necessity, but these don't detract much from what is otherwise an excellent read.

If you're already a SF fan, but haven't tried Banks: the Culture novels fall more or less into the space opera genre, and the SF elements are, to a large extent, props for more conventional storytelling. The 'big idea' behind the Culture concerns what a future utopia might look like: in the Culture's case, a space-faring hedonistic society possessed of unlimited resources, where money and personal property is unknown, largely run by hyper-intelligent and benevolent machine consciousnesses called Minds - the nearest thing in the Culture to a government. The one downside of this starting-point is that such a society is intrinsically boring, and as a result all the action in Banks's SF novels tends to happen at the intersection between the Culture and other civilisations. I've always thought it was a shame Banks hasn't really dramatically explored the ramifications of such a society in more detail, but then he isn't really a novellist of ideas, at least not in his SF works (I'm not that familiar with his mainstream work).
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on 30 October 2010
As most of the other reviewers have written, another excellent offering from IMB! Given how much I enjoyed reading this book, I feel churlish not to give it a 5 but must take a star off because of the shortcomings of the Kindle edition.

Although I love real books, I don't like hefting them around or the space they rapidly consume in a small flat, so (also taking into account environmental issues & impatience to read!) have become a Kindle convert...

BUT... I despair at poor Kindle conversion. Erratic line breaks, hyphenation and paragraphing mar this book. This is both an insult to the author and reader alike. Given the economy of time & money in both the reproduction and distribution of an ebook, why is it that so little attention given to basic proof reading?

One guess is that Kindle editions are only given a very cursory proofing at a single magnification without consideration to how it will appear at a different size. Yes, this will require a second examination, although the main errors jump out at you and are easy to spot. Come on epublishers, get your act together!

Beyond this, I might say that there were passages devoted to wargaming hells that I found as irritatingly meaningless in their repetition as I find computer gaming but, I suspect, this was entirely intentional and IMB's typically deft delivery of plot weave, humour and 'socio-cultural psychology' certainly delighted, as always (even though, personally, I don't have a great appetite for the obligatory gruesome episodes - inevitable here, I guess, given it's about hells...).

Finally, I did get a feeling of déjà vu from the battleship game. I don't remember where I might have read something similar, so it could easily just be in my imagination and, after all, Mr Banks certainly stimulates one's imagination - thanks, IMB!
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on 28 October 2010
Banks is an infuriating writer. His Culture universe (sorry galaxy) is so tremendously clever and so brilliantly sparkingly hard-fi that I am unable to read any other sci fi writers now except vintage stuff, or Philip K Dick and other writers like JG Ballard who lurk between genres.
Other SF writers must despair when they read the Culture series - how do you follow the scale, ambition and thoroughness of his ideas?
He has also infuriated me by regularly introducing medieval worlds filled with feudal societies, courtiers, swords and steeds - no wonder we have to tolerate Harry Potter in the SF section at the bookshop. Whose idea was mixing SF and Fantasy - Conan and Harry Potter can clear off quite honestly.
Anyway - I digress.
This is a proper Culture novel at last. As ever Banks has various levels of civilisation interacting and rubbing each other up the wrong way. Thankfully the lowest tech level pan humans don't ride around on unicorns or clouds.
As ever you wish he'd included a glossary of Ship/Mind/Avatar names. As ever he keeps 3/4 separate but linked threads going throughout. However (1), someone please tell me the significance of the name on the final page. This is clearly meant to be very significant but if it's in this book then I missed it (through the usual sheer weight of names), if it's in another then I'm sorry but I have a life outside this stuff and I don't plan to research it.
However (2), the character Yime Nsoyki(can't be bothered to check the spelling)and her massive plot thread seem to serve no purpose. I can't see the point in her either as a protagonist or to throw light on to other plot or character points. This is clearest at the climax of the book where her role is truly pointless. I wouldn't mind but she's so dull and cost me 100 odd pages of pointless reading.
I give this 4 stars because no current SF writer can touch Banks. In his own world however it's a 3 star max. It's a welcome move away from muskets and chainmail but does not compare to 'Consider Phlebas' or 'Windward' which blew me away.
What is more worrying is that he has now made the Culture so invulnerable on every level that they have shifted almost into the realm of magicians with almost no real threat. This provides amusement when dealing with the GFCF but we need some more Idirians or their obnoxious cousins to seriously threaten the Culture.
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on 25 October 2010
I have looked forward to this book for some time and enjoyed it enough to give it 5 stars but I have some niggles which I will explore here.

The story revolves around the use of post "real" life hells - the kind of places your religious friends would have you go after you die for not believing in their doctrine or beliefs, or in Bank's story, as a punishment for some kind of non-conformance in society - a punishment in the afterlife bought about by some hi-tech wizardry that allows mind-states to be recorded and plunged into a virtual realm of true awfulness.

Banks is able to use various societies and species in various stages of development or enlightenment to make his points, which means you can feel you are in an historical fantasy one minute and some cool near perfect futurescape the next. In my opinion the fantasy-like elements that involve castles under siege and such-like always hit a bum note. Thankfully these are kept to a reasonable minimum in this book (unlike the eternally frustrating Matter - a book worth 1 and 5 stars at the same time)

Like most people I want more of his vision of technology and the perspectives of a profoundly powerful and aware consciousness that the various Minds we are introduced to represent. I love Bank's ability to create real and lasting characters from super-machines, and the fact that most of the time these Minds are benignly looking after billions of fleshy animals like us creates a neat and rich context within which he explores the frailty of life, and the morality of both individuals and the societies they form.

So, on the positives we have a truly magnificent character in the form of an awesomely powerful and dubious warship; the revelation of new elements in the Contact section of the Culture; a pathetically evil uber capitalist; a searing indictment of the notion of hell designed to create control and obedience through fear (religions please note); and a lasting impression that under the Culture's care-free exterior is a tough, dark, and uncompromising soul.

Now the wait for another instalment - will it be an Excession or an Inversions. No matter. I assume that if we don't like it we can all go to hell.
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on 25 April 2012
The book is typical Banks; thrilling, action-packed, well-written, thought-stimulating and provoking, epic - yet it is, unusually for him, it is also amusing. As always, it is full of fascinating characters - a tattooed slave, a virtual warrior, the most reprehensible capitalist you'd ever want to meet, though it's the ships ("Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints" and its avatar Demeison, the Hooligan-class LOU "Me, I'm Counting", and the awfully staid "Sense Amidst Madness, Wit Amongst Folly") that really steal the part; mischievous, anarchic disruptors or upholders of authority, occasionally slightly paranoid, always full of confidence, representatives of a mighty power. When I come back in another life I want to come back as one of Bank's ships!
The book starts off as a series of, apparently unrelated, short stories (the pursuit and brutal murder of a slave-girl, the misadventures of a sapper in some mediaeval siege, a couple being tormented in Hell, a "robot-warrior" fighting a rearguard action) that gradually merge together into this grand space opera which deals with noble aims, intrigue, power-politics and casual destruction. The story that pulls it together is that of two conflicting ideologies involved in a war aimed at deciding whose beliefs are going to define the future.
I loved it... I entered an alternative reality and lived a full life there.... What more could anyone ask for?
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